September 16, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

To attack Biden, GOP attacks free speech

Opinion editors are helping.

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Let’s talk about a genre of political punditry that appears genuine and reasonable but has more in common with conspiracy theory than well-intended debate in the interest of democracy, intellectual honesty and the common good. On closer inspection, in fact, it’s clear these writers are modeling ways of rationalizing political decisions that have already been made. They are, moreover, demonstrating a total lack of caring about whether their “arguments” are plausibly right or wrong. Opinion editors have incentive to balance views, obviously, but they have no incentive to sort good faith from bad. They themselves don’t care if opinion writers care about the truth, because the business of journalism doesn’t care. It encourages and rewards venomous bullshit.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The genre I’m talking about was in wide circulation when the Democratic Party was searching for a new standard-bearer. Everyone envisioned a nominee who could unite the party while appealing to disaffected white Republicans, the balance being critical to amassing the majority needed to defeat the president. Bernie Sanders seemed to be the frontrunner. Op-ed pages were filled with dire warnings, apparently in good-faith, against the party choosing “a socialist.” The perspectives varied, but the conclusions were the same. Picking Sanders would guarantee four more years of Donald Trump.

Opinion editors have incentive to balance views, obviously, but they have no incentive to sort good faith from bad.

These arguments had almost no effect, fortunately. Joe Biden’s nomination was rooted in the preferences of pragmatic Black voters, in the south and midwest, more than the preferences of disaffected white Republicans. (Black Democrats saw Biden as a shield against white supremacy and other bigotries more than white Democrats favoring a progressive candidate, and they were right.) That these arguments had almost no impact on party decision-making allowed them to stay in circulation. Writers who said they’d vote for Trump if the Democratic Party picked “a socialist” are now saying the same thing: they’ll vote for Trump if the Democrats keep “being socialist.” You get the feeling it doesn’t matter what Biden does. The goal isn’t genuine engagement in free speech. It’s exploiting free speech to sow confusion, cast doubt and otherwise discredit the Democratic nominee. Moving the bar is what serial abusers do. Opinion editors don’t seem aware of their complicity in the gaslighting of trusting readers.

More importantly, opinion editors do not seem aware that this genre of punditry, however much it might appeal to their need for balancing an array of political views, does not care whether it’s plausibly wrong or right. Caring about the rightness or wrongness of an argument means caring about the practical consequences of it, which means taking responsibility for the integrity of the social relationships that constitute a community. In other words, caring about rightness or wrongness means caring about trust. Writers of I-was-for-Biden-before-I-was-against-him don’t care whether you trust them. They care instead about poisoning public discourse, making it harder for voters to make good choices, and thus improving the president’s chances of winning. Making all this worse is these “arguments” are seen as respectable. They’re more like dangerous conspiracy theories, though, and opinion editors should see them as such.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Conspiracy theories are not just crazy cult conniptions. They are the rational result of people deciding to sever previous obligations to the democratic process and the common good, because the democratic process and the common good are getting in the way of their political goals. For many now welcomed into the GOP, it’s no longer possible to win by arguing the Democrats are right or wrong about this or that policy. Reasonable good-faith arguments are insufficient. (Reasonable good-faith arguments, moreover, demand sharing space with political opponents deserving annihilation, not respect.) Conspiracy theories not only create boogeymen that justify any means of destruction; they attack the ways by which the enemy maintains an advantage: the persuasive power of free speech. Undermine free speech. Undermine the enemy.

As I said before, QAnon “believers” don’t care whether their conspiracy theory is true. All they care about is bringing to mainstream attention the allegation that the Democrats, and by extension Joe Biden, are part of a secret cabal of pedophiles and cannibals conspiring to bring down the president from the inside of the federal government. The conspiracy theory, in other words, is merely a convenience that, among other goals, legitimizes political violence in a society that normally shuns political violence. In a very real sense, all Republican rhetoric is conspiratorial. Biden is a Trojan Horse for the radical left. The Democrats tried stealing the 2000 election. Jamie Harrison, Senate candidate, is hiding something in tax returns he won’t release. (He did.) Making the allegation is the point. Caring about whether it’s true isn’t.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

6 Comments

  1. EllTeacher on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

    John writes, “The goal isn’t genuine engagement in free speech. It’s exploiting free speech to sow confusion, cast doubt, and otherwise discredit the Democratic nominee. Moving the bar is what serial abusers do. ”

    I’ve known how useless it is to try to engage in political discussions while living in Mobile, Alabama, the home of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions. Last week saw an extreme example that even I couldn’t have fathomed.

    Undergoing cataract surgery while under sedation, the surgeon began discussing all the corrupt ways Hunter Biden was put on the board of directors for that Ukrainian company and the point seemed to be that putting Hunter on the board was a corrupt action on the part of Joe Biden.

    I became lucid enough, because of shock, to know that I was truly uncomfortable with the discussion and asked for a change of subject. That request only brought out more “reasons” about the so-called corruption, to which I responded, “Y’all need to watch other channels than Fox News.”

    Now mind you my left eye is held open with a clamp of sorts and I’m trying my best not to move because I don’t have any knowledge about the progress of the surgery, and I’m frightened that any movement on my part could ruin my eye.

    After more remarks being made from the white surgeon to defend his point of view, I said, “I’m a Democrat and now I don’t feel safe.”

    He patted my shoulder and said, “I’ll pray for you.” I once again pleaded with the personnel in the room, “I don’t feel safe. I need to get out of here.”

    I have switched doctors and will have the right eye’s cataract removed at a different facility, which may take some time because that facility was in the path of Hurricane Sally. It’s okay, I’ll wait. I can’t face such a situation or that doctor ever again.

    And if you are wondering, yes, I did try to leave against medical advice once I was back in recovery; however, I was told that doing so might mean my insurance wouldn’t pay for the procedure. I was rational enough to understand this and the recovery room nurse told me she wasn’t in the O.R. so I laid there another half hour.

    My rationale for writing about my experience is to highlight the phenomenon of some white, professional class Trump voters in finding some way to justify their choice of Trump in 2020.

    It doesn’t matter that Hunter Biden is not running for office. Facts have nothing to do with choices in this campaign. My doctor may or may not be a closet racist. I’ve seen many African-Americans in his office when I’ve had appointments.

    I suspect what’s motivating him is to keep the status quo in American medicine–he probably actually fears “Medicare For All.”

    In this region, Trump ads focus more on the socialism and “radical” leftist ideas of AOC (who is not running for president), than they do about “law and order,” which is a message that doesn’t need to be highlighted in this area.

    This insight as to the fears of monetary setbacks if Biden gets elected is probably going to be very effective across the South. It may be just as effective elsewhere in the U.S., with medical professionals and those in related fields.

    John has written in the past about the sadism of the conservatives.

    I had always believed that the sadism was more in thought than in deed, but now, I know that even the people I believed to be above such thought are, on the contrary, NOT above putting such thoughts in action.

    I can’t think of a better illustration of exploiting “free speech” than a surgeon spouting conspiracy theories to staff and a patient in an operating room and feeling so emboldened in his opinion that he’d continue even when the patient asks for a change of topic and laters states she isn’t feeling safe.

    Has anyone ever thought that an O.R. would be a venue for poisoning public discourse?

  2. hw on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

    We also have a bit of a chicken and egg scenario, which while it does not absolve the media or pundits of their blame for poisoning the discourse and placing their personal interests first and foremost ahead of the country’s wellbeing: NYT subscriptions have increased and FB is booming. We have limited power as citizens, and yet, few people I know will even close their FB accounts. If enough of us did this small action, it would immediately strengthen our democracy, but we won’t. If enough people canceled their NYT subscription as a rebuff to their idiotic headlines and both-sides political reporting, we would see changes, but we won’t. Not everyone can protest or run for office, but everyone can make small choices that, in the aggregate, can effect positive change, but we don’t. I’m very grateful for the hard work of many grassroots organizations and independent journalists, but I also think citizens need to ensure that they are doing everything that they can…even if it causes temporary inconveniences If everyone who expressed concern about the survival of our democracy closed their FB account, it would do more to rouse Zuckerberg to repress conspiracy theories than 10 Congressional hearings. Why aren’t we doing this?

    • Scott Sauyet on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

      In response to 2016, I upped my monthly contribution to ACLU, added several new groups to my regular support. I’d already stopped using FB, so that couldn’t do much, although I suppose I’ve never deleted my account. I canceled my NYT subscription when they outed the Ukraine whistleblower (but dreadfully miss some of the good writing and feel guilty any time I bypass their paywall for something I just *have* to read.)

      I served in local politics for many years, and after some time away I will probably do so again next time around. I picked up more letter-writing to the local weekly and spent more time than before on political Twitter, trying to rebut nonsense.

      But it’s not enough. I don’t think I can do enough. I don’t know if anyone can. I haven’t entirely lost hope over the future of our nation, but I feel that hope slowly waning.

      So you’re right, there are things to do, most importantly right now involving voting and helping reasonable candidates win their contests with our time and money. I still fear that our country may have sunk so far into the partisan mire and the idiocy of the current leadership that none of these activities will make a permanent dent in it.

      But it’s the only chance we have. We have to do our best to make it work.

      • hw on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

        Thank you, Scott. If tens of thousands did half as much as you have done, I would be far less worried about the outcome in 48 days.

  3. Bennett on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

    Which opinion piece of late is being referenced? Might it be this guest piece from AEI, right-wing shill Danielle Pletka. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/i-cant-stand-trump-but-democrats-may-force-me-to-vote-for-him/2020/09/14/1cf10518-f6c4-11ea-a275-1a2c2d36e1f1_story.html. Mind you, this is someone who supported the Iraq War (and never looked back) doesn’t believe in climate change as Oregon burns, and advocates the use of torture (which, well, never works). She was senior staff for Jesse Helms. Seriously does anyone need to know more?

    Leaving that aside, some distinction should be drawn between op ed writers and guest editorialists. As we know, there are many bad-faith regulars, from Ross Douthat, who continues to embarrass himself with counterfactual claims about the federal administration’s COVID response (or lack thereof) , to Bret Stephens’ at this point lifesaver-clinging climate change denials. The real question is what does it take to get thrown out the front door, as seemed to happen to Bill Kristol as he bumbled his way through opinion after opinion with a weekly fact check correction.

    There’s perhaps more to be said about bad-faith opinions, although these are challenging since it always possible for someone to draw truly stupid conclusions–bad inferences–from good (but usually selective) data. Many religious opinions from the truly pious operate in exactly this way. I’m not sure how much this kind of thing can be policed from the top since the criteria for what’s in and out are not entirely stable. In the end, it may well be the case that the best way to kill a truly lousy opinion maker is to do something quite antithetical: don’t respond, read, listen, or watch.

    Nothing kills a column than lack of response/interest. Not sure if that is always the wisest measure, but it may well be. It is a lot like my thoughts about listening to Trump. I don’t. I already know the content of his contribution–and there’s nothing there. In fact, I go out of my way disregard it. For example, any public health announcement from him I immediately disregard because it it is uninformed or disingenuous. In other words, entirely useless (and possibly dangerous).

    In that light, his press briefings should be the easiest thing not to attend since there’s no there there. Sadly reporters still attend not to gather any news but to play gotcha–which as we now know is also pointless since Trump supporters rationalize all gotchas away and the rest of us don’t need more gotchas.

    Bad punditry should be met sometimes by cricket. Sort of like Trump in Tulsa.

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

      Hi Bennett, I added some links pointing to the genre I’m talking about. Yes Pletka.

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